You've probably already seen the musical "Annie," especially if you've had a little girl in the family during the past 30 years, because the seven-time Tony winner has become a staple of schools and community theaters and has been filmed twice.
Even though you might love the music and story of the relentlessly optimistic, Depression-era orphan, you probably think that you've seen it enough.
Well, you would be wrong. The version by Music Theatre of Wichita has a freshness and flair that makes it all new again. Perhaps because of seeming parallels with today's economic downturn, it has a particular resonance with audiences it didn't have even two years ago. Its lessons about the value of looking up and forward, as encapsulated in its ubiquitous anthem, "Tomorrow," ring absolutely true once again.
But it's more than just some fateful historic convergence. Los Angeles-based director Roger Castellano, who has a genius for working with young talent, creates a sweet, breezy, joyous show that delights, thrills and, ultimately, touches us deeply.
This "Annie" is the crowd-pleaser for MTW this season. It's also a rich and sumptuous production, using set designs from the 30th anniversary national tour, including a grand staircase in Oliver Warbucks' mansion that sweeps across the stage and a fully decorated and lighted Christmas tree that reaches to the top of the curtain opening. There is even sparkly snow at just the right finale moment.
But the key, of course, is the remarkable cast. Alyssa Danley from Edmond, Okla., who turned 14 just days ago, is a powerhouse Annie with a big Broadway voice that's clear, clean and utterly alive with fun and expectation. Her wistful "Maybe," in which she imagines her long-lost parents, is lovely and riveting. So is her "Tomorrow," whether sung to reassure herself or the president of the United States.
New Yorker Michael DeVries, who is taking a two-week break from "Wicked" on Broadway to return to MTW, makes a dandy Daddy Warbucks. DeVries and his powerful baritone deliver a new song written for the 30th anniversary that gives insight into Warbucks' soul. It's a showcase moment as he ponders why he wants to disrupt his seemingly perfect life by adopting Annie, and he realizes it's because he can't ever remember being a kid himself.
Jennifer Perry, a stand-up comic with great musical theater chops, plays orphanage director Miss Hannigan as a cross between Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion (check out that fright-wig mane) and Carol Burnett, who played the role in the first movie. But Perry is more palatable than Burnett, who was just too mean. Her lament, "Little Girls," is a cry for help from a frustrated old maid, not a real villain. Perry's comic timing is broad but sure-footed.
Denis Lambert as Hannigan's strutting con-man brother, Rooster, and Kaleigh Cronin as his sexy, dim-witted girlfriend, Lily, are in fine voice and dance form for "Easy Street," perhaps the catchiest song in the show. Emily Mechler is a tuneful, lovely presence as Grace, Warbucks' assistant, although her ultimate status as his future wife and Annie's mom is underplayed here.
The scene-stealers, though, are those eager fresh-faced orphans who fill up the stage for "It's the Hard-Knock Life" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," not to mention Sandy (played by Dudley, owned by Kelly Spencer), Annie's amazingly nonchalant dog, who never glanced nervously into the wings or into the audience to break the fourth wall.